LEXINGTON, Ky. — Senior Night turned into Senior Day. And the Tennessee women’s basketball team was barely recognizable in the transition.
After clinching the SEC regular-season championship and celebrating Senior Night on Thursday, the eighth-ranked Lady Vols looked utterly helpless Sunday on Kentucky’s Senior Day at Memorial Coliseum.
The frustration mounted as fast as the turnovers and shorthanded Tennessee lost its poise long before it lost the game, 78-65, to 10th-ranked Kentucky.
The Lady Vols played without injured center Isabelle Harrison. But they were missing more than a starter.
Their confidence eroded possession by possession against a pressing, pawing Wildcats defense, which forced 31 turnovers, including 19 in the first half.
UT’s problems began almost as soon as its first dribble. It had seven turnovers in its first 10 possessions.
“We just got outworked and out-hustled,” Tennessee coach Holly Warlick said. “We didn’t get the job done. I thought it would be difficult to play two games of this magnitude back-to-back.”
UT’s incompetence was magnified by its superb play just three days earlier in an 82-72 victory over 13th-ranked Texas A&M. The same offense that at times was downright dazzling against the Aggies was dazed from the outset against Kentucky.
“Anybody that has played here before knows that’s what Kentucky does,” UT guard Meighan Simmons said. “They’re going to come out and hit you with the first punch.
“We had to regroup.”
The Lady Vols cut a 12-point lead to two late in the first half, but the comeback was more a result of Kentucky’s wayward shooting (31.8 percent from the field in the first half) than a Tennessee turnaround. The Wildcats quickly reestablished their superiority in the opening minutes of the second half.
Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell would have had it no other way.
“I made it very clear that nothing was acceptable but victory,” said Mitchell, a former UT graduate assistant who, after just six seasons at Kentucky, has more victories than any other women’s basketball coach in school history.
Mitchell’s motivation stemmed mainly from it being the final home game for seniors A’dia Mathies and Brittany Henderson.
“Those kids came here when we were selling a dream,” Mitchell said. And now, they have made it a reality.
“Nobody wanted to be around me if we lost.”
Mathies helped make sure that didn’t happen. The Kentucky guard, who scored 34 points against UT on the same floor last season, did much of her damage on defense this time.
Although Simmons had a team-high 17 points, she
struggled terribly against Mathies, who blocked two of her shots and helped hound her into 4-for-15 shooting from the field.
“Mathies is a great player,” Simmons said. “She made me better. She made sure I didn’t get anything easy.”
Nothing came easy for her teammates, either. Not dribbles or passes or shots.
And when their expressions reflected their struggle, Kentucky seized on that as well.
“You feed off it,” Kentucky point guard Jennifer O’Neill said. “You get momentum off it.”
Tennessee vs Kentucky, March 3, 2013
As dominant as Kentucky was, it still couldn’t make up for Tennessee owning the SEC regular-season championship.
“I was concerned we didn’t win the title,” Mitchell said. “I was very, very disappointed. We desperately wanted to win the title.”
But Kentucky at least succeeded in beating the team that did. And it looked like a champion in the process.
John Adams is a senior columnist. He may be reached at 865-342-2684 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at johnadamskns.com.